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Why History Will Not Look Kindly Upon Ashli Babbit & The Women Of The Insurrection

Photo: Brandi Lyon Photography / Shutterstock
Why History Will Not Look Kindly Upon Ashli Babbit & The Women Of The Insurrection

The images of Ashli Babbitt’s violent death shocked the nation. Owner of a San Diego pool supply company, she led a crowd of rioters to the Speaker’s Lobby of the United States Capitol on January 6, in snow boots, sporting a Trump flag as a cape. She was shot dead by a Capitol police officer as she tried to intervene in the congressional validation of the 2020 presidential election. 

The crowd of protesters, invited to D.C. and directed to the Capitol by the President of the United States, was heavily male, adding a poignant, unsettling dimension to the scene. A suburban businesswoman, traveling from California to the people’s House, shot by a government agent during an act of political expression. 

What to make of Ms. Babbitt? Women have been in the vanguard of social and political change since the country’s founding. Was Babbitt a model of political protest, laying her body on the line for truth, justice, and the American Way? And how, after all, do we choose our battles, ensure that we achieve what we pursue, and evaluate success?  

I recently traveled to four continents, including much of the United States, to interview women and men who prevailed in their political causes against seemingly insurmountable odds, for a just-published book co-written with Adam Monier Edwards, Surmountable: How Citizens from Selma to Seoul Changed the World.

I spent days on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation with LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who fought the Dakota Access Pipeline, inspiring 10,000 protesters who came from far and wide to help. I dined with the head of the female defense militia in Kyiv, who resisted deadly Ukrainian government forces while demanding — and achieving — the end of the oligarch-controlled regime.

I marched in Tunis with Tasnim Kotti, Muslim mother of three who fought for the overthrow of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali. And spent time at Alice Paul’s home in southern New Jersey, the birthplace of the champion of women’s suffrage. All in search of an effective playbook for the modern activist, as Adam and I researched the founders’ notions of citizen activism. 

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I asked conservative scholar Colleen Sheehan about James Madison’s original intent in placing the notion of protest in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Most of us are familiar with the first three freedoms. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

But integral to the notion of a healthy democracy are the last two; “…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The framers of our Constitution built an extraordinary framework of representative democracy, with checks and balances, and provisions for a peaceful transition of power. As former Students for a Democratic Society president and current head of the Columbia Journalism School Ph.D. program Todd Gitlin shared in the book, back in the day that meant nobles could go directly to the King of England with a grievance. We do that now via the ballot box and our elected representatives. 

Did Ashli Babbitt take a feverish, lawless detour or was she aligned with the best traditions of American protest?

The political education of Alice Paul holds some clues. 

Paul and her suffragist sisters fought all manner of abuse, engaging in provocative protests that included the burning of President Woodrow’s Wilson’s speeches in front of the White House. She was a tireless advocate and model for nonviolent political protest, despite aggressive, often vicious treatment by men outraged by her audacity. 

Steeped in American Quaker traditions of nonviolence and public service, Paul was schooled, politically and academically, in London in the early years of the twentieth century. She worked closely with Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline, leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union. 

Before Gandhi was Gandhi, he was a South Africa lawyer, who first encountered English suffragists in 1906. He was impressed. Many of his strategies for the Indian resistance to British colonial overlords were inspired by the Pankhursts.

Alice Paul and Mohandas Gandhi shared a notion of nonviolence as a transcendent driver of strategy, but also a high moral sense of justice. To paraphrase Dr. King, himself, the modern standard-bearer of nonviolent civil disobedience, they kept their eyes on the prize. King, and Gandhi, and Paul spent years finetuning their understanding of their missions, with a singular goal based on a rock-solid spiritual conviction:

Women should have equal opportunity under the law. 

African-Americans should have equal opportunity under the law.

Indians should have control of their national sovereignty

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Paul won the right to vote for American women in 1920. While LaDonna Brave Bull Allard led the Standing Rock resistance with other Sioux women warriors, she and fellow resisters were assaulted by state and local police, but they remained diligently nonviolent. Rainey Reitman led the Electronic Frontier Foundation team that helped block onerous new copyright legislation through the first-ever Internet blackout. And Ashli Babbitt put her body on the line to affect an election. 

But, alas, Babbitt’s North Star was MyPillow, her ideological foundation grounded in the hope of a military coup. Success can be measured in raw power and immediate outcomes — they could indeed have captured or even murdered members of Congress or the Vice President. But the cause was unjust, based on a torrent of lies, and it was neither learned nor virtuous. 

We hit the road in our “Surmountable” journey to seek out a playbook, a hard list of successful tactics. We learned plenty of lessons, with patterns and commonalities in the stories harvested. Invariably, nonviolent action, with a strong dose of patience and perseverance, was an essential organizing principle for lasting democratic change. Along with strong, ethical leadership and a singular focus.

The United States has big challenges to tackle in the coming years. The violent assault on the nation’s capital failed and damaged the centuries-old tradition of a peaceful transfer of power. The country needs women like Paul, Allard, Reitman, and the other heroines in our collection of stories to renew the culture with its founding values of literacy, prosperity, and the unfettered pursuit of happiness.

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Brian Gruber traveled to 15 cities across four continents in search of the stories that became Surmountable. He has spent 40 years studying, leading, and developing new media companies and creative projects. Gruber was hired by C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb to be the pioneering cable network’s first head of marketing, where he hosted two live national call-in shows each week.